I have been neglecting paddling in recent years. So when my friend Kent suggested we paddle the Missouri River 340, I did not immediately say no. However, it was a 340 mile non-stop canoe race (!) and whether it was something this 61-year-old body could accomplish was less than certain.
We had made provisions for sleep. We chose a 20-foot tripping canoe, instead of a racing boat. We carried a sleeping pad and had practiced with one of us laying in the bottom of the canoe, while the other paddled. In the end though, it became a flat out race, no sleep for the entirety, of the 42 hours and 55 minutes that it took to paddle from Kanas City to St. Charles.
My paddling partner has always been fond to tell me that there is no one who can beat him in a sprint, and I have seen him paddle enough to know that as truth. Still in countless conversations leading up to the race we had talked about the need to stay under control, especially at the beginning. Yet, I knew what was coming when we placed ourselves toward the front at the inside of the corner of where the Kansas River flows into the Missouri and as I might have predicted, we ended up sprinting off the line. One of the two fast 4-5 person racing boats hit us in the stern and spun us almost into the other. Words were exchanged, the long and short of it was that they thought “we didn’t belong where we were.” I suppose it might have looked that way to a focused team who had just hit the sort of boat you might use on a trip to the Boundary Waters, however, what they did not know was that in the bow was a former USCA National Champion. So it became a flat out race… We judged each tandem team that passed us and decided we did have a chance—they were working too hard for a 40+ hour effort!
We were hoping to average 7.5 mph (which is a fast pace), but by the end of the first day, we had established an 8.6 mph average. The river was not far below flood stage and the flow was exceptionally fast. When we got to the 3rdcheckpoint at Glascow (141 miles) we had stopped for a total of 2 minutes to switch out empty water jugs. As the day progressed there were 2 other boats in our class that we were trading the lead with. A couple guys in a wood strip pro boat the were switching between canoe and kayak paddles, and a couple of young guys in an aluminum canoe that were making up for the inherent slowness of their boat with an exceptional amount of power. By late afternoon we had dropped the pro boat but the aluminum guys were still in front, we passed them toward sunset and would hold that lead until the next afternoon.
We entered the first night of paddling. The Missouri River is not without hazards. There are wing dams and floating debris. Because the river was high, submerged navigational buoys would pop out of the water at anytime. Reading the river, which was not all that hard during the day, became uncertain and as fatigue mixed with drowsiness and eventually in the early morning a light fog, gave everything an ethereal feeling. There was a kind of hallucination that all of this created as the intense focus that was required mixed with exhaustion mixed and darkness. We became accustomed to seeing things that were not there!
By morning I was pretty certain that we were not going to finish this race. Kent had thrown up a couple times and was unable to eat or drink. Both of us were catching ourselves falling asleep in the middle of paddle strokes. We would paddle a few minutes and then stop for what seemed like longer. I was loosing both my focus and my desire to continue. At this point we were still the lead tandem boat, but I was fighting the thought that we should paddle to Jefferson City (mile 223) and register a DNF. Instead we stopped for a major resupply, got out of the boat for 15 minutes, and got back in feeling a little better. As we were pulling out, the second place aluminum boat was pulling in, they looked as spent as we felt.
We were very much in survival mode when we left the Jefferson City check point. With 120 miles still to go, we decide to focus on paddling in 15-minute blocks, which I promptly upped to 30. I am not sure if that helped Kent, but I did help my focus.
It took the aluminum canoe until mid afternoon to catch us and while we were not feeling all that competitive, both of us had kept looking behind us to see how much they were gaining on us. Eventual we decided to drop our pace and let them pass. After wishing them well, we were able to focus on what we thought was going to be the hardest challenge of the race. We reached the checkpoint at Herman (269 miles) at 5:45 pm. Projecting our time forward, we where looking at the 3-4 am finish and a second night of paddling!
Toward evening we decided to increase our intensity as a way to stay awake, and then as late as possible to take the caffeine tablets I was carrying and hope that would be enough to see us through to the finish, This started to feel like a race again as opposed to the death march that it had felt like for most of the day. Our pace and focus improved. Some time around Klondike (mile 311) maybe 11:00 pm we took caffeine and also consciously kept our effort up. Another factor that helped in the final stages of the race, was that once we got past the checkpoint at Hermann, where there was about 70 miles to go, and our spirits lifted as we once again were able to envision finishing this race!
At 2:55 am on Thursday morning, we arrived at the finish in St. Charles. 42 hours, 55 minutes after we began. We were the 14thboat over all, 2ndmen’s tandem, and probably the first boat in without a rudder.
We had chosen a Wenonah Minnesota 3 as a boat. It was probably the perfect boat to finish this race with. It was super stable, had the most comfortable canoe seats I have ever sat in for a extended period of time, and it was an efficient design – our average over the entire race was 7.9 mph! a racing boat might have been faster, but we would not have been able to sleep in it (something we thought we would do, but didn’t), and perhaps that was our only significant miscalculation, we had a bigger boat than we needed!